Union blacklisting and police spies

From New Internationalist Easier English Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Union blacklisting and police spies

In 2009 there were reports that companies put workers on blacklists for union activity, they put their names were on special lists because they thought they were dangerous. Since then progress has been slow. Phil Chamberlain writes.


Credit: Dun.can/flickr

There are people working in the gig economy - part-time and temporary - on self-employed contracts that give them few protections.

Chris Stephens is a Scottish trade unionist and an MP. He used Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Theresa May to order a public inquiry after reports of police involvement in blacklisting trade union activists.

Theresa May did not answer his question and she said that the government answered this suggestion before. Yes, it did. In 2015, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, she ordered an inquiry into undercover policing. This was after reports that police officers secretly worked with groups, they had relationships with female activists, and sometimes they had children with them.

And in 2009, The Guardian newspaper reported that more than 40 of the UK’s biggest construction companies paid for a secret organization to watch union activists.

The Consulting Association in the West Midlands had files on more than 3,000 people. If someone applied for a job and their name was on the file, they often secretly blacklisted them. If they talked about health and safety problems or took part in union activity, it went on their file. The result was that people lost their jobs.

The Consulting Association started as the Economic League. The Economic League was an anti-union, free market organisation started a hundred years ago to stop communist activity. Hundreds of companies used its services and they had tens of thousands of files, until the League ended in the 1990s. This was after journalists and MPs reported the truth about them.

So, blacklisting has a long history. And there was a secret government committee on Subversion in Public Life. The committee watched about1,400 civil servants who they thought were a danger to democracy. They thought there were about 50,000 dangerous civil servants in the country. The committee began in the 1970s, stopped, and then started again in the 1980s, and then stopped again.

From Theresa May’s answer to Chris Stephens in parliament, it is clear that watching and blacklisting workers involves corporations and the government working together. A parliamentary inquiry into The Consulting Association heard that important programmes such as the Olympics and Crossrail were involved in the scandal.

One positive result from the last ten years is the ways workers and activists now work together.

Construction workers have suffered for a long time from so-called self-employment contracts. The contracts mean that companies have no interest in the legal obligations to look after their workers. Dave Smith was on the Consulting Association blacklist and had a file of more than 30 pages. When he found this, he took Carillion to court because in the files it said Carillion did not allow him to work. Carillion admitted doing it. And they won the court case because, under UK employment law, they did not directly employ Smith. And the European Court of Human Rights agreed.

Carillion is not a company any more but the same problem with employment protection is still there. Smith’s case helped bring to public attention one particular problem. Blacklisted construction workers used different ways to get their complaints heard, for example, flash mob demonstrations and social media.

Similarly the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain has won campaigns to support workers such as outsourced cleaners and self-employed delivery riders. These groups have been sharing ideas and lawyers to force changes.

The scandal also showed that blacklisting is not a thing of the past and not only in a few sectors such as construction. In 2015 Sir Robert Francis QC wrote a report, Freedom To Speak Up. The report was about whistleblowing or reporting on wrongdoing in the NHS. Francis reported that many people said that whistleblowing would have a bad effect on their career.

In 2016 there was a conference co-organized by New Internationalist. The conference brought together these different groups to hear their stories and find support. Organizations like Protect now have advice for people who think they are blacklisted.

Undercover police officers have watched many other groups. On the Consulting Association files there were environmental campaigners, journalists, and academics. The police and corporations were very interested in people involved in anti-roads protests and animal rights. Independent researchers, activists, and journalists showed that the police watched more than 1,000 groups. These also included justice campaigns for those who died in police custody or, like the Stephen Lawrence campaign, who said the police acted wrongly.

Some of the changes since 2009 do not work. In 2010 a law to make blacklisting illegal has been mostly useless. A £75m out of court settlement with big construction companies was a success but not one company official has appeared in court or lost a job. Unions continue to follow the legal route.

The success is that workers in the UK and abroad are now campaigning together against blacklisting. People around the world have heard the stories of these workers and their experiences have helped others to act. And we hope that will continue.

Phil Chamberlain is co-author of Blacklisted: The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists (New Internationalist)

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2019/03/07/union-blacklisting-and-police-infiltration-ten-years

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)